Nate Silver, he of 538 and Baseball Prospectus fame, recently gave an interview to ESPN the Magazine about predictive analytics in sports. In it, he was asked a question about why many people are surprised when the projected (like the Rockies being bad in 2012) occurs. I thought his reply was excellent:
As a general rule, organizations of any type have difficulty with honest self-evaluation. So a major league team thinks, We have an 85-win roster, and we're gonna go and sign this free agent who will give us six more wins and make us a 90-win team and push us over the playoff hump. Well, that could be a correct line of thinking, but if you're not being honest about the 85-win thing ... Because what usually happens is that you say your third baseman was injured half the year and he'll be back full time now, and this rookie pitcher is going to be really good and make 28 starts for you.
But you forget that someone else is going to become injured. And that your shortstop, for reasons that had nothing to do with his talent, just had a good, lucky year. People tend to blame all the ways in which they're unlucky without accounting for the fact that we probably got lucky in other areas as well.
The Rockies aren't a perfect fit for this theoretical team. After all, they are one of the most insular organizations in the game when it comes to signing free agents: Michael Cuddyer was the first honest-to-goodness established free agent (who came from another team as opposed to being re-signed) the Rockies had lured in since Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2001. But the Rockies do have a problem with self-evaluation that I think affects the organization more than it does other teams.
Case in point -- Colorado is one of the least successful organizations in baseball over the last 20 years by traditional standards. It could certainly be worse -- they made it to the World Series five years ago and the playoffs two more times beyond that -- but they haven't ever won a division title or more than 92 games in the regular season. Despite this lack of success, the Rockies have largely been overseen by the same regime for 13 years, which has led to a Lake Wobegon mentality of "kudos all-around, darn the results". I wrote more about the Lake Wobegon Effect a few weeks ago.
Has this regime overseen some genuine successes? Absolutely it has. The Latin American pipeline has been tremendously productive in producing starting pitching and there have been some excellent looking drafts over the past couple of years. We'll always have Rocktober in 2007 and Rocktober 2: Electric Boogaloo in 2009. It's just that it's hard to find much near-term hope in the organization given the talent currently on the team and the passive approach the team takes to acquiring major league-ready talent.
The Rockies are a self-proclaimed draft and develop organization (see Dan O'Dowd's bio for a shining example of this), which is all well and good when the team is able to have a critical mass of their prospects reach the major league level at the same time, but by and large in this game you won't be able to build a championship-caliber roster using only your farm system. The other 29 teams have farm systems too, and those farm systems might contain prospects that are better than our prospects. Furthermore, it might be necessary every once in a while to trade the potential of top prospects away for the more certain production of major league talent.
Colorado was 64-98 last year, with one of the worst pitching staffs in history even when you adjust for park factors. And yet, have they pursued any of the free agent pitchers that could have helped shore up this glaring deficiency. Unless you count perennial Rockie Jeff Francis, the answer is no. I understand that the Rockies have certain challenges attracting these free agents to play for the team, but an effort has to be made. I also get that there are several young pitchers with potential already on the roster, but at some point O'Dowd needs to use some of those maybe never assets to acquire something that will give the Rockies even a mediocre starting rotation next year.
I think that the Rockies to a large extent are a well-run organization from a business standpoint (I'll write more about this later this week), but in terms of baseball operations I believe that somebody who hasn't been directly involved with the past few years needs to take that 30,000 foot view of the club and see if maybe a new strategy is needed. New Director of Pitching Operations Mark Wiley is a step in the right direction, but I think more could be done in the area.
To continue with the self-evaluation theme, in this off-season capsule article on the team, manager Walt Weiss had this to say:
"With improved health alone from some of these guys," Weiss said, "we feel like we will be considerably better."
Which is true to an extent, but it won't turn a 64 win squad into a 90 win team. There's some good nuggets in the article on Wilin Rosario, Eric Young, and Dexter Fowler, so I'd recommend browsing a little bit.
Don't forget to listen to Purple Row ask some questions of Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd and Co-Owner Dick Monfort this during the 8 o'clock hour at this link or on 93.7 FM.